Eastern & Orient Express (Brad A. Johnson)The best way to experience the true soul of a place is to arrive by train. I’m reminded of this after spending several days aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express and disembarking my posh Pullman car at the dirty, chaotic platform of downtown Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station at the height of rush hour. My senses are instantly thrust into overload. Train whistles are blowing at nearly all the 20 or so platforms. People are shouting, laughing, scrambling for luggage, rushing to climb aboard one train or another. Cars waiting in the street are honking incessantly. A chicken runs underfoot, feathers flying. A dozen young monks in bright orange robes shuffle through the station in a parallel but silent world. “Where is my valet,” I’m wondering?
For the first time in days, I’m starting to sweat. My head is spinning. And then it hits me, that smell which is so uniquely Bangkok: a thick, heady swirl of sweet jasmine blossoms and smoldering incense, the rotting funk of overripe durian fruit, the bizarre tang of eggs being roasted in their shells over red-hot charcoal, a thrilling whiff of lotus flowers, lemongrass and the vanilla-like perfume of pandanus. This is the way we were meant to travel!Moments like this are what inspire our wanderlust and make our adventures more authentic. Thankfully the art of train travel is once again in vogue. Only, today’s best trains aren’t merely a means of getting from point A to point B. And although many of them still cling to the moniker “Express,” they are anything but quick. The trains themselves are just as much the destination as the extraordinary locales through which they chug, day and night. And although they more or less run like clockwork, there is hardly a mandatory schedule to keep for those onboard. Breakfast on the observation deck as the train climbs through a dew-soaked rainforest? Afternoon cocktails in the library car, while watching the desert become a blur? Eyes focused on the passing wetlands, searching for an elephant or perhaps a wildebeest? Dinnertime is almost always a glamorous affair—lobster, filet mignon, Champagne, soufflés… And there’s simply nothing else in the world that can compare to being lulled to sleep at night by the clickity-clack of the rails while cuddled in the finest linens and goose-down pillows, the curtains on the window left open to view the passing stars. In an era of fast and furious travel, trains have become the ultimate luxury—not because we have to take a train to get where we’re going. But simply because we can. Here are four spectacular train journeys to consider: Eastern & Oriental Express (courtesy of Orient Express)
Eastern & Oriental Express
Bangkok–Chiang Mai–Isan–Bangkok, 6 nights
Earlier this year, the Eastern & Oriental Express introduced its first new routes in more than a decade. The most interesting of these new journeys takes guests on a seven-day journey into the rarely visited Isan plains along Thailand’s southeastern border with Cambodia, a area rich with 12th century Khmer temples, tea plantations and vineyards. The train then turns around and heads northward to the culture-rich city of Chiang Mai and Khao Yai National Park, home to wild elephants, gibbons and extraordinary birds. Come dusk each evening, the train bustles with life. Every meal is an event—two hours of crystal and fine china, of wine and canapés, lobster curry, filet mignon and petit fours—and everyone dresses for dinner. Cocktail hour begins about an hour beforehand, with passengers gathering in either the bar car (where a pianist performs) or the library (for elegant conversation).
Maharajas Express (courtesy of RIRTL)Maharajas Express
New Delhi to Mumbai, via Rajasthan, 7 nights
Launched earlier this year, the long-awaited Maharajas Express is a lavish, royal-worthy joint venture between the government railway and luxury tour outfitter Cox and Kings. The eight-day voyage from Delhi to Mumbai travels through the former imperial cities of Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, passing through the rugged Aravali hills and across the Thar desert, where it’s highly likely you’ll see villagers attired in brightly colored robes and turbans crossing the plains with herds of camels. The train ventures into the former royal hunting grounds of Ranthambore, giving guests an opportunity to try to spot Rajasthan’s elusive Bengal tiger in its natural habitat. Throughout the journey, guests have a chance to visit the Taj Mahal, take a brief but exhilarating boat ride down the Chambal River, attend an exhibition elephant polo match and shop the local bazaars for precious stone jewelry and textiles.
Rovos Rail (courtesy of Rovos Rail)Rovos Rail
Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam, 14 nights
Several times a year, Rovos Rail embarks on a grand 14-day odyssey that travels up the continent from Cape Town, South Africa to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The train pauses for a two-night stay at a private safari lodge at South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, then then crosses through Botswana into Zimbabwe for an overnight visit to Victoria Falls. After crossing the mighty Zambezi River, the train continues climbing northeast through Zambia, where guests have a chance to take part in a bush walk at Chisimba Falls. The journey continues towards the Zambian/Tanzanian border, then descends into the Rift Valley, negotiating tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts through some of Africa’s most spectacular landscape en route to Dar es Salaam by way of Tanzania’s legendary Selous Game Reserve.
Southern Spirit (courtesy of Great Southern Rail)The Southern Spirit
Adelaide to Brisbane, via Melbourne, 5 nights
Australia’s Great Southern Rail recently launched a new train that travels between Adelaide and Brisbane with a pit stop in Melbourne. The Southern Spirit is the company’s most luxurious train yet (in a family of trains that also includes The Ghan). The route traverses four states, traveling through the Great Dividing Range and along the eastern seaboard with whistle stop tours of Grampians National Park, Albury-Wodonga on the Murray River, the open range Taronga Western Plains Zoo and Byron Bay, plus wine tasting excursions in the famed Hunter Valley. In keeping with Australia’s laid-back attitude, life onboard the train—and the evening dress code for the dining and bar cars—is decidedly casual. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 debut issue of Montage, the new in-room magazine for Montage Hotels and Resorts.